Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How's this for Renault's Corporate Social Responsibility?

When in 2002 the Benetton Formula One team morphed into Renault it was clear that what the French car giant was seeking to do was to secure brand value from the move, in return, of course, for funding. Constructors' and Drivers' championships in 2005 and 2006 will undoubtedly have given the brand a major boost and whilst it is never easy to draw a direct and quantified line between success of this sort and brand equity there can be little doubt that Renault's substantial investment will have paid off. But the recent revelations about what Simon Barnes of The Times called "…worst single piece of cheating in the history of sport" will not just have damaged Renault's F1 credibility beyond repair but also have done almost irreparable damage to the corporate brand as well. Let's see why.

Like most major corporations Renault trumpets loudly its commitment to "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR). Here is what they say on their website:

"Renault maintains relations with a wide range of stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, local communities and residents, associations, and international organisations… These relations are based on two guiding principles: dialogue and transparent, loyal behaviour. Renault’s commitment also extends to the key social issues linked to the automotive industry, such as sustainable mobility and road safety (sic), and to initiatives for civil society."

Fine words, albeit words that are easy for a skilled copywriter to craft. Much more difficult of course is to walk the talk - to actually put into practise what you say you believe in. Major corporations can always be tripped up by determined investigators who can usually find some Achilles heel where practices don't match up to the high ideals of its stated CSR policy. But in Renault's case this was not some quiet little known business where standards were slipping - it was one of the most visible manifestations of the corporate brand - Formula One.

Now it may be that the big chiefs of Renault feel that they had in a way contracted out the running of the Renault F1 team to Flavio Briatore and that their big corporate hands are squeaky clean. Briatore has been banned from F1 activities indefinitely, and Pat Symonds, the former chief engineer has been suspended from the sport for five years. They even feel that they are clear to continue with their F1 involvement with their reputation untarnished because the World Motor Sport Council has only given the team a suspended sentence - in effect no punishment at all.

But if CSR does mean anything at all surely Renault at the very top must accept that this has been a shocking breach of their CSR policy by one of the most visible parts of their empire? It is reasonable to ask whether Renault's CSR commitment to transparency and to road safety applied to their F1 team. If it did then how to they feel now? And if it didn't then surely it should have!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Michael Vaughan to join a winning Test Match Special “A” Team

On the fallow day between England’s failure to defend a total of 299 on Tuesday and their even more woeful attempt to get a similar total on Thursday, both at Trent Bridge, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the Producer of Test Match Special Adam Mountford. Now attentive readers will know that I have a wee bit of previous with Mr Mountford but he, to his credit, offered an olive branch and we eventually got together deep in the heart of the Vale of Belvoir for a spot of lunch. And very enjoyable it was to for whatever the doubts may have been when Mountford took over from the long-serving Peter Baxter in 2007 can there be any doubt that this has been a bit of an Annus Mirabilis for the programme and its producer?

Test Match Special (TMS) is one of the very few iconic programmes on the Radio where the programme brand is its strength and where the presenters or performers may come and go but the core values of the brand stay constant – or should. The “Today” programme, “Woman’s Hour”, “Desert Island Discs” and of course “The Archers” are among the few in this category and TMS is up there with them. But one of the problems with icon status is that listeners are fiercely defensive about the programme and often very reluctant to accept changes. This was certainly the case with TMS and Mountford was accused of dumbing down and of being too willing to adopt the tabloid style culture of Radio 5Live. These accusations were mainly attributable to the choice of commentators and summarisers that he made in his first months in charge. Radio 5 has been criticised for having “homogenised” voices with one presenter’s accent and tones being indistinguishable from another. There is some truth in this gibe and when Adam Mountford introduced similarly cloned voices to TMS there was adverse comment - can you distinguish your Mann, from your White from your Pougatch? Not to mention the estuary tones of Phil Tufnell – a celebrity superstar replacing our much loved old grump Mike Selvey! Oh my Johnners and my Arlott of long ago – how you must be looking on at it all from on high with horror!

Those of us who remember the early days of TMS can recall how the programme gradually evolved from rather stilted and formulaic cricket commentary into what Jonathan Agnew has described as a “roomful of mates chatting away”. Would this survive in the new regime and in particular how would the Ashes Tests of 2009 be produced – would strict ball by ball commentary endure and would those carrying it out be our old chums – Aggers and Blowers and Jenkers? (Christopher Martin-Jenkins really was called “Jenkers” by Brian Johnston but somehow this didn’t survive the great man’s passing!). So when I sat in my seat in Sophia Gardens on Wednesday 8th July, the first day of the 2009 Ashes, and tuned in to TMS’s build up to that first day’s play it was with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. At Cardiff we had all three of the TMS heavies as well as the hugely experienced Aussie game-caller Jim Maxwell. Not only that but the “A” team of summarisers was there as well – Boycott and Marks and the superb Ian Chappell. And when Tufnell took his turn he held his own admirably and soon showed that he is a clever reader of the game with an engaging communications style and a strong voice – albeit one that now seemed a bit more “Radio 4” than I remember from when he was crowned King of the Jungle! Mountford says that four commentators is probably one too many in any one match – although it was certainly justified for the first Test. So for the foreseeable future we can expect some rotation between Aggers, CMJ and Blowers and also the occasional match for the very good Simon Mann. The experiment with Arlo White and Mark Pougatch as Test match commentators is unlikely to be repeated – although they will continue to work on limited overs matches. And the summarisers rota will comprise Boycott, Vic Marks and Phil Tufnell – to whom can now be added Michael Vaughan, something that was finalised by the BBC at Trent Bridge where the ex England captain made his debut on TMS.

The Ashes listening figures were, Mountford believes, around six million – more than three times the number of viewers for Sky’s television coverage. It is surprising how vague the listenership figures are for BBC radio and it is virtually impossible to be anything like precise about the numbers that tune in to TMS. Within the BBC itself the programme is high profile with senior suits from the DG downwards listening to and taking an interest in the programme. I sensed that Mountford rather relishes this even though the degree of attention must be a bit wearing at times. Perhaps the uniqueness of TMS and that fact that it is one of Radio’s Jewels in the Crown has ensured that if there ever was a risk of serious dumbing down and absorption into Radio5 Live this has not happened. The innovations are really quite modest, Tuffers for Selvey, on pitch interviews before the start of a day’s play and greater responsiveness to listeners who text or Email the programme. The much reported interviews with Lily Allen and Daniel Radcliffe may be seen as an attempt to go pop but there has always been a tradition on TMS of interviews with those who are famous for other reasons and have an interest in the game - and Aggers is very good at these interviews and for most listeners I suspect that there is no problem with them. Mountford said that 75% of the messages after the Lily Allen interview were positive and given that a fair number of the traditional TMS listeners had probably never heard of her this was a good result.

As with any live unscripted programme there are elephant traps for the unwary and Mountford has had one or two dodgy moments. My own personal moment of disgust came during the New Zealand Lord’s Test Match in 2008 when former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney said of incoming batsman Ross Taylor that he was “From the South Pacific in the sense that he is not a New Zealander at all” and moments later couldn’t identify “which of the islands” Taylor came from. In fact Ross Taylor, whose mother was from Samoa, was born in Lower Hutt in North Island and is very much a New Zealander. Mountford describes Coney as having made an “error of judgment” and there the matter rests – although I am sure that I am not alone in feeling that there is no place on as iconic a programme as TMS for an expert summariser who reveals prejudice or ignorance, or maybe both, on air.

But whilst errors of the Coney type are unacceptable that does not argue for blandness or over-sensitive political correctness. You want some creative tension and we did get this year from time to time – particularly between Boycott and the commentators and especially Jonathan Agnew. CMJ, Aggers and Blowers are mostly very polite to one and all and so was Jim Maxwell. Vic Marks and Ian Chappell were also very courteous – as was Matthew Hayden who summarised in the later Tests and did an excellent job. The genial Tufnell didn’t really wind anyone up or try and start an argument and on his Trent Bridge showing nor will Michael Vaughan – good though his debut was. So for the future Mountford, who has clearly been treading rather carefully this year, might want to have a bit more attack from time to time in the box and move a little bit away from the blandness-risking “Radio Old Chum” style.

BBC Radio has negotiated a home matches broadcasting contract with the ECB that will keep TMS going until 2014 and most overseas tours will be covered as well. But the upcoming Champions Trophy in South Africa will not have ball by ball and listeners will have to rely on updates from Alison Mitchell on Radion 5Live – or watch Sky. The international matches against South Africa will have the full TMS treatment though and the core “A” team will be in the Republic for the Test matches along with the local commentator Gerald de Kock.

Adam Mountford resents the suggestion that he was a parvenu who was out of his depth when he took over from Peter Baxter pointing out that not only that he had been Baxter’s assistant for five years but that during that time he had produced a number of matches and tours himself. Nevertheless I sense that he was seen as a bit different by the rather cosy, public-school educated and supremely self-confident TMS team that he now had to lead, and that this was a bit of a problem. It may be that he has had to rein in his instincts for change in order both to keep the team together and to deflect the critics who had him in their sights for a while. But his success in 2009 has surely silenced some of the doubters and raised his credibility and profile both within the corridors of power in the BBC and with his TMS “chums”.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

3000 people, no dogs - and precious little sense either!

As a previous winner of “The Wisden Cricketer” (TWC) letter of the month award (note to friends – the Cockspur Rum was excellent and there is none left) I naturally always look at the prize-winning letter each month with particular interest. Now John Stern, TWC’s estimable editor is a sensible sort of chap (I flatter him not because I want a review of my John Shepherd biography in his organ, although that would be nice, but because he is genuinely on the side of the good guys on cricket). Given his commonsensical approach I can only assume that behind his stern (sorry!) and rational facade there is a cove with an impious sense of humour. Why else would he publish Jack Endacott’s hilarious “defence” of the County Championship – I think that on this occasion the editor’s tongue has been not unadjacent to his cheek!

But given the letter’s prominence I had better gently demolish the arguments in it and, whilst I have no wish to be unkind to Mr Endacott, in the search for truth I am afraid that I have to show why he is, on this matter anyway, deluded. Let’s start with the assertion that a “crowd” of 3,000 is in some way something worth boasting about. True it is way up at the top end of the spectator count for County Championship matches – most of this years hundreds of days of Championship cricket will be watched by a ‘“crowd” nearer to the “one man and his dog” than they will be to Taunton’s three thousand. The County Championship is England’s premier domestic cricket competition but compare it with the premier competition in other major sports such as Football, Rugby Union and Rugby League and it is nowhere. Indeed to get crowds as low as this in Football you would have to go down to the lower reaches of Division 2 of the Football League – the fourth tier of the professional game! And comparable matches in the two Rugby codes get proper crowds of at least three or four times the Taunton masses. Limited overs county cricket fixtures do, of course, sometimes attract much larger attendances – but it is the County Championship that Mr Endacott is writing about and which he claims is the “bedrock of the game”.

I have mentioned before veteran sports writer Frank Keating’s mournful assessment of the modern County Championship but it is worth quoting again:

“…another summer of what has tragically become a drawn-out primeval charade, the English County Championship. For decade upon decade it was a cherished adornment of the summer sub-culture, certainly for my generation when heroes were giants and giants were locals. About a quarter of a century ago the championship began fraying and then in no time unravelling. It is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries.”

Keating is right on all counts. Somerset’s eleven for the two matches that Mr Endacott enjoyed contained no fewer than six players who are foreigners and not qualified for England plus a couple of old internationals who won’t play again (Trescothick and Caddick). So the home team had just three players in it that might, if good enough, one day play for England! Yes it is true that “No England player would have made it without starting in [the Championship].” But they had little choice did they – it’s the only game in town! But is it the best that English cricket can do to prepare players for Test cricket – of course not.

The County Championship is the bedrock of only one thing – and that is the County system itself. Without it the structure of domestic cricket in England would unravel, and not before time. The model for the future is indisputably one that has far fewer teams, higher standards of competitiveness, a minimum number of overseas players and which is largely self-financing without the need for huge handouts from the ECB. A six or eight team domestic cricket structure with proper competition in both the four day and the limited overs games with matches played in proper grounds offering spectators decent facilities is what is needed. Our national fondness for nostalgia and sentiment and our often dogged determination not to see the bleeding obvious even when it is staring us in the face has kept the County Championship, a Victorian invention, just about extant even into the third millennium. And the vested interests at the ECB and the eighteen counties are such that the replacement of the “charade” will not be easy – but if England is to be properly competitive, and consistently so, as a cricketing nation the time is ripe to try.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Grim stuff at The Oval and Lord's

For my sins I saw nearly every ball of the first two One Day Internationals live at The Oval and Lord’s – and a pretty depressing experience it was as well. Not because England played poorly or that Australia didn’t play much better but because the matches lacked edge and were almost entirely bereft of memorable moments. At The Oval there were only two innings over twenty which were scored at more than a run a ball (Wright and Rashid) and only Rashid and Bracken bowled well enough to be given ten overs by their captains. In 100 overs there was just one six and fours came at less than one every two overs– it was pretty dire stuff England’s belated run chase excepted. Indeed it was only during the last nine overs of England’s innings that the crowd was stirred up at all – most of the time they were eerily quiet with the monotony only broken by the odd nutter in fancy dress. And so it was at Lord’s as well – a match almost completely without excitement or interest. Not one six in the match and even fewer fours than at The Oval – and only one innings of merit, Mitchell Johnson’s excellent (and match-winning) 43 off 23 balls.

The very first competitive and professional One Day match in England took place in May 1963 at Old Trafford and in the first Innings Lancashire scored 304 runs in 65 Overs – a rate of 4.68 an over – not bad although admittedly there were no fielding restrictions in those days. Forty-six years on Australia and England scored at much the same rate in their two recent matches. So what has happened to the much heralded acceleration in ODI scoring rates which was predicted followed that extraordinary match at The Wanderers in March 2006 when South Africa scored 434 in 50 Overs and Australia chased the total down scoring 438-9? Well I think what has happened is Twenty20. England has played 22 Twenty20 internationals from 2006 onwards and Australia about the same. So whereas pre Twenty20 the 50 Over game was the only limited overs version of the game and it was, therefore, the place where improvisation and attack was rife (there were 26 sixes and 87 fours in that Wanderers match) now it is Twenty20 where the excitement takes place and it is on that stage that the batsmen try and take hard-hitting control.

Frankly at the first two matches of this seven match ODI series neither side really seemed to know what they were doing. Ravi Bopara opened the England innings and presumably he was expected to hit hard in the initial power-play overs. In fact his strike rate was only 56 and his patchy 49 took him 28 overs. Michael Clarke took 72 balls to make his 45 with only three fours and the promising Callum Ferguson looked like a Test player, and potentially rather a good one, rather than a limited overs biffer in his two innings.

Shane Warne said recently that “ODI cricket should go. It has evolved into Twenty20 - cricket only needs two forms of the game.” You can see where the great Australian bowler is coming from and there is certainly evidence to support his view that natural selection has given us Twenty20 and that ODIs are dinosaurs. The cricket aside the two days at The Oval and Lord’s were enjoyable – the sun was on our backs from time to time and there was a glass or two of something cold readily to hand to anesthetise us from the happenings on the field of play. I will always enjoy a day at the cricket not just a few hours which is the Twenty20 model. But if we want spectators to have an enjoyable and competitive limited overs cricket day there are other models worth trying. How about two innings of 25 overs rather than one of 50? Or maybe double header Twenty20 matches like they sometimes play in baseball. Twenty20 is baseball’s bastard cousin after all so perhaps we could adopt a few more of their ways and means.

The next ODI is at the Rosebowl tomorrow and tickets are still available - should you decide to invest £60 a pop I hope you get some decent cricket for your money. I won’t be there. Struggling with the traffic in darkest Hampshire after the match at 11:00 pm was never a good idea so I’ll watch it on TV – unless, that is, I decide to join the vast majority of Sky Sports enthusiasts who will watch England v Croatia from Wembley instead!